When Heifetz told Schoenberg that he could not possibly perform the latter’s Violin Concerto unless his own left hand were to acquire a sixth finger, the composer allegedly replied: “I can wait.” Perhaps a similar sentiment governs the harpsichordist confronted with Handel’s decidedly tricky solo pieces.
On paper they might not look overpoweringly difficult; but often they fall awkwardly under the hands, in a manner which Richard Egarr’s impressive booklet essay compares to Brahms’ pianistic style. At least the piano has a sustaining pedal to help out with polyphonic interplay (Glenn Gould, Sviatoslav Richter and Andrei Gavrilov all tackled these works). No such luck with the harpsichord. Besides, stylistic problems – greater than anything in Bach’s English Suites or French Suites – also bedevil the player. How Handelian should they seem, given that their free-and-easy preludes echo the French clavecinistes, and their intricate counterpoint passages do not resemble much in the oratorios
or concerti grossi? Altogether it is unsurprising, if regrettable, that (except for everybody’s favourite movement, The Harmonious Blacksmith concluding Suite No 5) this music has been traditionally underestimated.
Egarr’s curiously frivolous interpretations seem to me unlikely to win converts. The man has technical brilliance to burn, but he rarely uses one ornament where half a dozen will serve – as musicologist Roger Fiske once asked of a similarly over-decorated account, did Handel never want the score adhered to? – and he repeatedly falls short on rhythmic steadiness. Rubato and agogic emphases that would be excessive even in the daintiest Couperin are still less appropriate to the Saxon master. Easily the best tracks are the most fugal ones, where Egarr must concentrate upon the painstaking delineation of individual voices. With serviceable harpsichord versions of this repertoire already available from Naxos and other bargain labels, Harmonia Mundi is hurting itself by charging full price for this set. The aggressive recorded sound seldom helps either.